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It is only fitting that Greg Schiano, a Jersey guy, put Rutgers on the football map. Schiano, who grew up in Wyckoff in Bergen County and was a 195-pound linebacker at Ramapo High, has done what no one thought possible: he has built the state university of New Jersey into a gridiron power.
“He had a vision of what college football in New Jersey could be,” Schiano’s mother Renee told Lenn Robbins of the New York Post. “He really felt it. He had that vision and he had a plan.”
In the 2006 season, Schiano led the Scarlet Knights to an 11-2 record and a 37-10 rout of Kansas State in the Texas Bowl, the first bowl victory in the school’s history. It was a stunning achievement that earned the 40-year-old Schiano the Maxwell Football Club’s George Munger Award as College Coach of the Year. He received 480 first place votes, easily outdistancing Ohio State’s Jim Tressell who finished second with 87 votes.
“Rutgers is the best story in college football,” said Kansas State coach Ron Price, who fell to the Scarlet Knights in the Texas Bowl. “It’s the American story. It’s a story about hope and that with hard work, you can make anything happen in this country.”
For years, Rutgers was a downtrodden football program with few victories and even less hope. New Jersey produced many outstanding football players, but virtually all of them left the state to attend college. Rutgers did not have a football profile and when Schiano took over as head coach in 2001, most people felt he was walking into a no-win situation.
“When I took the job, they said I was crazy,” Schiano told Dick Weiss of the New York Daily News. “This was home for us, but Rutgers was about as low on the totem pole as you could find.”
Success did not come overnight. The Scarlet Knights won just three games in the first two seasons under Schiano. But 2005 was a breakthrough season as Rutgers won seven games and earned its first bowl appearance since 1978, playing Arizona State in the Insight.com Bowl in Phoenix.
Schiano built on that momentum in 2006. The Scarlet Knights won their first nine games and climbed as high as seventh in the polls. The highlight of the season was a 28-25 win over third-ranked Louisville before a national TV audience on November 9. More than 10,000 Rutgers students camped out, waiting for tickets the night before the game. When the Scarlet Knights pulled off the upset, football fans from one end of New Jersey to the other joined in the celebration.
“(Schiano) has created an aura about this team and has captured the imagination of people in this state,” athletic director Bob Mulcahy told Weiss. “He’s given them something to call their own. The people in this state have been desperately grasping for something to hold on to. This is a New Jersey team with New Jersey pride.”
A heart-breaking 41-39 triple-overtime loss to West Virginia ended Rutgers’ bid for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series, but the Scarlet Knights overcame that disappointment to crush Kansas State in the Texas Bowl as halfback Ray Rice ran for 170 yards and one touchdown.
“It certainly hurt quite a bit after the West Virginia game,” Schiano said, “but when you’ve only been to three bowl games in 137 years (Rutgers has been playing football since 1869), it’s exciting. The chance to win 11 games, that’s something our seniors will carry forever.”
Schiano demonstrated his commitment to Rutgers by turning down an offer to succeed Larry Coker as the head coach at the University of Miami. Although Schiano previously worked as an assistant coach at Miami, he felt a greater loyalty to Rutgers and his home state.
“Jersey was all I knew,” said Schiano, who attended Bucknell and considered law school before pursuing a career in coaching. “Since I’ve been a coach, I’ve been to nice places – Pennsylvania, Chicago, Miami – but this, to me, is still home."